In 991 on the east coast of England, Vikings warred against Saxons in a battle for the future of the country. What happens next will shock you…
Actually, it won’t shock you.
The Vikings won, and the Saxons were routed.
The battle might have been forgotten, but the widow of the Byrhtnoth, the Saxon leader, may have been the one who commissioned a poem written about the battle.
While we only have a fragment of the poem, that fragment has survived for close to 1,000 years.
I’m Amy Bright, and today we’ll be looking at the historical context for the poem “The Battle of Maldon.” On Friday, we’ll have a chat about the poem itself.
A note on “historical” context. The information we have can be conflicting, incomplete, and intentionally biased (sound familiar?).
I recognize this and also that I might have missed out on newer information in my research. If you hear anything questionable or flat-out wrong, let me know in the comments (kindly, please. I am of a delicate constitution)!
Back to the backstory!
In the late 700s, the Vikings (aka Danes and Northmen) began to raid the island now known as England regularly. In fact, they kept a swath of land under their control called the Danelaw.
Almost 100 years later, King Alfred the Great, a Saxon, resisted the Vikings and conquered the Danelaw, which led to some semblance of peace (although much fighting continued).
Alfred’s grandson Aethelstan ran out more Vikings and became king of all England (927--the year England became England).
Life seemed decent (for that time, anyway), until 978 when King Edward (one of many!) was murdered and his 10 year old son Aethelred became king. The Vikings seized the opportunity and resumed raids.
Sometimes they did raid, but often they extorted money from England--it was a giant protection racket without the protection part.
In 991, the Vikings attacked Thames and Ispwich. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings who attacked Maldon were led by Olaf Tryggvason and his 93 ships.
The details of the attack are in the poem, so we’ll discuss that Thursday. The basics are this:
The Saxon Ealdorman Byrhtnoth called up his fyrd (militia) and withstood the Vikings at the River Blackwater.
Whether through desertion or lack of training or overwhelm or a number of reasons, the Viking “slaughter-wolves” killed and routed the Saxons.
The poem is cut off before the final blow, but the Viking raids net them a rather large sum, and Olaf returns three years later, this time with Svein Forkbeard, king of Denmark, to attack London and create enough chaos to extort even more money AND impel Aethelred to sue for peace.
Note: Some of this history is shaky and may have been conflated. However, “Svein Forkbeard” is too awesome a name to ignore.
This then is the historical context of the poem: instability, frustration with years of raids draining local and national coffers, and locals taking on well-trained warriors to protect their homeland.